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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Us versus Them

Quotes from two posts on Sullivan's blog illustrate the old, old story, the sorry human condition - which is the cause of so much suffering in the world and always has been.  And that, at the hands of "good" people too - like you and me.

1. From a reflection by Robert Ebert on that school mural in Arizona:
I began up above by imagining I was a student in Prescott, Arizona, with my face being painted over. That was easy for me. What I cannot imagine is what it would be like to be one of those people driving past in their cars day after day and screaming hateful things out of the window. How do you get to that place in your life? Were you raised as a racist, or become one on your own? . . .  The hard-won social struggles of the 1960s and before have fundamentally altered the feelings most of us breathe, and we have evolved, and that is how America will survive. We are all in this together.

But what about the people in those cars? They don't breathe that air. They don't think of the feelings of the kids on the mural. They don't like those kids in the school. It's not as if they have reasons. They simply hate. Why would they do that? What have they shut down inside? Why do they resent the rights of others? Our rights must come first before our fears. And our rights are their rights, whoever "they" are.
2.  Sullivan recounts a conversation with a friend over the Israeli attack on that flotilla:
I grabbed some food the other night with a longtime Jewish friend. We had an honest conversation - the kind you cannot have on US television. He's a big liberal but strongly sided with Israel in this latest incident. Why? "They're my people." But you're an American, I countered, you're not an Israeli, let alone a supporter of Netanyahu. None of that mattered to him. His attachment to Israel was indistinguishable from his attachment to America, and, if push came to shove, Israel came first, right or wrong. This had been dinned into him since childhood. His iPhone was deluged with texts from relatives and friends all appalled by any criticism of the commando attack, and immediately seeing it as anti-Semitic or designed to end the state of Israel for ever.

To charge dual loyalty is described as a blood libel, a vile anti-Semitic charge, and it often is. But my friend was very frank about it and unapologetic. That's just the way it is, he said. It was deeply ingrained. . . .

No decent human being who has a grasp of history, let alone the enormity of the Shoah, can fail to have a deep sympathy for the Jewish people, Israel, and respect for its enormous achievements. But the fanaticism and emotionalism that many Jewish Americans have with respect to Israel is so intense that, for some, it overwhelms rationality, and makes a cool strategic analysis of America's national interest close to impossible. Their total identification with Israel is often emotionally as strong, if not stronger, as their identification with America. . . .
That tribal loyalty - my country, right or wrong - is a very human but very insidious thing.  As we have seen, it will cause "good," upstanding, devout citizens of this or any other land to perpetrate and justify every evil under the sun, not excluding the most extreme reaches of torture and murder and genocide.

It makes me remember a conversation nearly forty years ago with a great-aunt, now long deceased - the very upright sort of Sunday-go-to-meeting old-fashioned Southern lady.  She told me the story of how back in the 1920's in a small Arkansas town, a black man had shot her brother, the local sheriff, to death in some altercation.  Whereupon the entire town immediately turned out to hunt down the culprit and hang him in broad daylight in the public square.  About which my great-aunt said, with quiet pride, "I was there, I watched it all."  And never turned a hair.

Us versus Them.  If They get out of hand or overstep the line, no punishment, no retribution is too awful for Them, the nasty beasts.  Even elderly Southern ladies who crochet lace antimacassars and have their blue curls shampooed and set every Thursday afternoon agree, without the slightest hesitation.  Or shame.

A very human thing.  And very ugly.  The quiet cruelty, the everyday evil that we all are capable of, potentially. 

And yes, I mean evil in the full philosophical and theological sense of the word.  Evil is no monster of awful aspect and frightening mien - evil looks just like the people you see on the street every day:  driving to work, shopping for groceries, going to church.  Evil looks just like that man in the mirror, bud - just exactly like him.

Which is something none of us likes to realize or remember.  So on and on the long, tragic story of humanity goes.  Right here, right there, wherever we are, all over the globe:  except where those few scattered points of spiritual light shine through humble, chastened souls.

And I could tell you other stories - like the one of the old gentleman I happened to meet once when I was in high school who recounted with great amusement, laughing, how when he was a boy in rural Mississippi attending a one-room schoolhouse, they used to use the scalps of lynched Negroes as erasers for the blackboard - and swore to the truth of it.  Laughing.  He was a nice old guy, very friendly, would help a neighbor with any job, give you the shirt off his back if you needed it . . . . you, of course, being one of Us, not Them --

But I suppose you get the point.

Photo:  Barry Somers Photoblog.


crumpet0552 said...

Well, I'm amazed that you've received exactly zero comments at the time of writing. I agree exactly with what you say about the Israel flotilla. I'm a British Jew (well, my mother was, so that makes me one) but I cannot accept what Israel is, or has been doing, since 1967. Yes, it has a right to defend itself, but all the constant pressure on its Palestinian neighbours, the lies (OK, the 'other side' lies too), the kowtowing to the racism and greed of the settlers, the refusal to see what the rest of the world sees, etc. etc. I may be Jewish but I'm happy to be a Brit - and I don't have the slightest desire to go to Israel. Is there something wrong with me, doc?

M. Pierre said...

a well put article and commentary. we all do see thing through our own experiences, and fears, and the prejudices we may have suffered, and ally with our group(s). i think i would like to look at myself here and try to make a resolution.. i only hope i can keep. whenever anything get's my dander up, i want to stop ..and ask that i be given "new eyes' to take an objective look at both sides of a coin. i can be a bit sharp tongued when i get on a soap box and there have been times i regret it.

Frank said...

Your description of evil - the evil that "looks like the people you see on the street...like that man in the mirror" is disturbingly, frighteningly true. And I think that we've become so deluded by the Us/Them ideologies that we are all too ready to "cast the first stone".

Russ Manley said...

Crumpet - Welcome to the Blue Truck. No, there's nothing wrong you bud, you just see things as they really are. Do not adjust your set.

MP - Yes, we all need to keep a bridle on emotion and give reason a chance to prevail.

Frank - The words of Christ you quoted are particularly apt here I think.

Doorman-Priest said...

I'm with crumpet. Sorry not to have responded sooner.

Stan said...

I just don't get that whole nationalism trip with "my country right or wrong" deal. Can't you have a free thought in your head? Or you probably watch too much Fox news.
If Somali pirates had done to that humanitarian flotilla what those Israeli commandos did imagine all the uproar?
Sorry I'm late with this too.

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